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Boozin' It Up With Brian Kragh

Jamie Jones @ 10:52 PM

Originally by Dan Stillman, June 2005

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with Washington-area weather professionals.

He won't be scrambling to save par or lining up a tricky birdie putt, but Brian Kragh is feeling the pressure at this week's Booz Allen Classic, formerly the Kemper Open, which starts in earnest with first-round action tomorrow at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.

Kragh, 28, is in his first year as meteorologist for the PGA Tour. (His services are provided to the PGA through a contract with The Weather Channel.) His words of warning can result in suspension of play and evacuation of an entire golf course in a matter of minutes. Safety on the links is of the utmost concern, but false alarms can cost the PGA time and money -- that's pressure indeed.

Who better to handle the heat, though, than Kragh, who before joining the PGA provided pressure-filled forecasts during an eight-year stint with the U.S. Marine Corps. CapitalWeather recently caught up with Kragh, a local guy who was born in D.C., grew up in Hughesville, Md., and now lives in Heathsville, Va. Here's what he had to say about forecasting and life on the tour.

CapitalWeather: How did you first get interested in weather forecasting?

Kragh: I grew up in this area. The weather around here is always pretty interesting. You get a pretty wide mix -- snow in the winter and thunderstorms in the summertime. There was just always something that was interesting to me and I always watched the local news channels -- Doug Hill and Bob Ryan and all those guys. I'd say Doug Hill is probably my favorite.

CW: How did you end up in the Marines?

Kragh: I actually planned on going the regular route and going to college right out of high school. But a Marine Corps recruiter convinced me that I could start working in weather right away, without going through a four-year process.

CW: Why are weather forecasts so important to the military?

Kragh: A lot of weapons with the military are weather sensitive. Cloud cover, humidity and temperature -- all that kind of stuff can determine how far away they can see their targets, how far away they can lock onto their targets, and the accuracy of the weapon. And then there's general safety issues -- icing, turbulence, severe weather.

CW: Can you describe your typical day at a PGA Tour event?

Kragh: I usually get to the course at least an hour before the first tee time. I'll make a PowerPoint slide that's got the forecast for the day, synopsis for the day and then an extended outlook for the rest of the week. That gets posted and it also gets sent out to the media and to other tournament officials. Then I'll usually go brief the rules officials who run the tournament. If there's bad weather I'm basically sitting in front of my computer, monitoring the radar and the lightning situation.

CW: Besides lightning, what kind of weather are tour officials concerned with?

Kragh: It's nice for them to know other things, like when it's going to rain. And wind directions are very important to them as far as set up of the course. It helps them determine their pin placements on the green. It's a lot more than what I originally thought.

CW: What tools do you have on-site?

Kragh: I got a couple different lightning sensors here. I got a field mill that detects volts per meter in the atmosphere, and then I have a detector that's got about a 50-mile range on it. It'll detect any type of lightning, not just cloud-to-ground. And then I have some subscription Web sites that I go to for radar and also for the National Lightning Detection Network.

CW: Who has the final call on suspending play?

Kragh: Ultimately it's the officials' call. But I'm in contact with them on the radio, and if I decide that it's a dangerous situation, then I'll come over the radio and tell them ... and they will evacuate the course. That's really my main purpose out here is the safety of the people on the course.

CW: What's the most intense situation you've had to deal with on tour this year?

Kragh: I'd say probably the Players Championship [in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Mar. 21-27]. I think overall I had to evacuate the course 11 times for lightning that week, and it's a pretty important tournament so there's just a lot of pressure to keep the players playing as long as possible and get back on the course as soon as possible. Sometimes it's a lot of pressure to make a very close call. (interview continued below)

Trial by fire: My first experience forecasting at a golf tournament
by Meteorologist Jason Samenow

On Monday, June 7, I took the day off from work to be the "volunteer" meteorologist at the U.S. Open Qualifier at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md. As a golf and weather fanatic, it was a no-brainer when I learned the organizer, Michael Cumberpatch, was looking for someone to help out.

I was kind of hoping for a clear day, so I could just relax and enjoy the golf. But I knew better. For days it had been apparent that the atmosphere would be ripe for strong afternoon and evening storms. The airmass was hot and sticky, and very unstable.

With the radar clear in the morning, I was able to get out and watch some terrific golfers including big names like Tom Kite and Mark O'Meara. I recommend attending a qualifier to any serious golf fan. These events are free and provide unrivaled access to the players and the golf course. There are no crowds and you walk the fairways with the players and can watch them putt from the edge of the rough around the greens.

Some scattered storms started to pop up on the radar around 1pm, but they were over 90 miles away and were moving quite slowly (at about 10 mph). Most of these dissipated by 4pm.

Between 4pm and 5:30, things were looking good. The radar was clear east of the mountains and I thought there was a chance the main line of storms, stretching from the south central Pennsylvania border southwestward into West Virginia, may not arrive until after 8pm or so. I made the mistake of telling Michael and a few others that I thought we might be able to get the tournament in. However, by 6pm, I started getting nervous. Storms streched from Baltimore westward through northern Frederick County and then southwestward into extreme northwest Virginia. Unlike the storms from earlier in the day, these were moving fast -- at 30mph.

At 6:30, as the storms moved southwest into Frederick, I told Michael Cumberpatch that we could expect storms in about an hour. By 7pm, a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for Montgomery County. I told Michael to be prepared to suspend play.

As the storms were edging into the northwest part of the county, the final groups were coming in and had between 1 and 3 holes to finish. I was well aware of this and wanted to extend play as long as possible to provide the opportunity for the players to finish. But the storms were moving fast and the players' safety had to come first.

At 7:17pm, with the storm about 10 miles away, with the wind already kicking up, I advised Michael to suspend play. The players were given three minutes to finish up before the horn sounded, officially suspending play at 7:20pm.

At 7:25pm, I heard the first rumble of thunder. At 7:30, I saw lightning in the distance. And at 7:35, the storm arrived, bringing torrents of rain, gusty winds, vivid lightning and some of the loudest thunder I've heard.

Play resumed at 8:30am Tuesday morning.

I learned several things through this experience: 1) It's stressful. Being put into the position as "the" decisionmaker is a heavy responsibility, especially with lives at stake. 2) Don't wishcast. Around 4 or 5pm, I wanted the rain to hold off so when it looked like a possibility, I was overly optimistic and conveyed this to officials. As thunderstorms can have a mind of their own, it's best to reserve judgment. 3) Making player safety the priority, and recommending play suspension when I did were the right calls.

Qualifier press coverage: Storm Whips U.S. Open Qualifying Into Spin Cycle (Washington Post) and Big Finish Earns Williams Open Spot (Washington Post)

CW: Which is more stressful -- forecasting for the military or for the PGA?

Kragh: I think it's more stressful at times [now] than it was with the military because you didn't have to be as precise [with the military] -- here at the golf course they don't care what's going on five miles down the road. All they care about is what's going on right here at the golf course.

CW: Any other unusual or memorable weather situations this year?

Kragh: We had the delay for snow and sleet in Duluth [at the BellSouth Classic, Mar. 28-Apr. 3]. It was just showing up as plain rain showers on radar, and it was 47 degrees at the surface so I wasn't really even thinking about snow or sleet. It just brought [the cold air] down and next thing you know it's snowing out there.

CW: So what do you do when you've got sunny skies, high pressure and a stable atmosphere in place?

Kragh: Then I usually go out on the course and enjoy some golf.

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